The Challenges of the Financial Calling
Acton Institute Powerblog

The Challenges of the Financial Calling

CREAMIn a talk he gave at Kuyper College for the launch of the new business leadership major some years back, Vincent Bacote made an insightful observation about the “people in the room” where things were decided leading up to and during the Global Financial Crisis. What if, he wondered, the Christians who were certainly there had the resources (intellectual, moral, and spiritual) to do something about the direction that things were headed?

I also wrote about how we need to recognize that the church already occupies Wall Street (as well as all streets!) and the task of moral formation that this reality entails.

But this call to “occupy” Wall Street is perhaps as complex and challenging an arena of cultural engagement and cultural development as there is. This incisive piece from Michael Lewis outlines some of the “occupational hazards” of that particular call.

Some highlights:

  • “People are vulnerable to the incentives of their environment, and often the best a person can do, if he wants to behave in a certain manner, is to choose carefully the environment that will go to work on his character.”
  • “You may think you are going to work for Credit Suisse or Barclays, and will there join a team of professionals committed to the success of your bank, but you will soon realize that your employer is mostly just a shell for the individual ambitions of the people who inhabit it. The primary relationship of most people in big finance is not to their employer but to their market.”
  • “One of our financial sector’s most striking traits is how fiercely it resists useful, disruptive entrepreneurship that routinely upends other sectors of our economy. People in finance are paid a lot of money to disrupt every sector of our economy. But when it comes to their own sector, they are deeply wary of market-based change. And they have the resources to prevent it from happening.”
  • “As a new employee on Wall Street you might think this has nothing to do with you. You would be wrong. Your new environment’s resistance to market forces, and to the possibility of doing things differently and more efficiently, will soon become your own. When you start your career you might think you are setting out to change the world, but the world is far more likely to change you.”

The very last sentence of the piece (“So watch yourself, because no one else will.”) speaks both to the significant moral agency and virtue that is required in this context as well as the need for structures of support, assistance, and accountability, primarily that of a vibrant life of piety and reverence.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.